Breaking The Christmas Seal

downloadI normally observe and enforce a strict moratorium on all things Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving.  That means no Christmas music or decorations of any kind.  Normally it would also apply to Christmas beers as well.  But today I will make an exception.  That’s because today Gingerbread Jesus 2015 goes on tap.

It was a lot of fun coming up with the concept, but it has been even more fun making it.  This year we kept the same basic Belgian Dubbel base but doubled the amount of fresh ginger and made sure we used whole cinnamon and fresh nutmeg. But never fear- based on a taste a few weeks ago, the spices do not overwhelm the beer.  Last year everyone agreed that the ginger was too subtle so we hope this helps make this already wonderful beer even better. It goes on tap today at Barren Hill Tavern.  The official launch party with Christmas Carols will be next Friday, December 4th and will include a keg of last year’s GBJ and a firkin of Gingerbread Jesús- which will be enhanced with cacao and ancho chilies.  Hope to raise a toast with you there.

gingerbread jesus

In the meantime I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving with family and friends.


This is Rachel.  Rachel is awesome.  She raises bees and chickens.  She makes her IMAG00762own pickles and preserves.  She is also a really, really nice person.  But Rachel has one fatal flaw.  She hates beer.  I don’t mean that she just doesn’t like it.  I mean she flat out hates it.

But you know what.  I refused to believe it.  Because like you, I know that  beer covers a really, really big range of styles and flavors and I was pretty certain that she just hadn’t found the beer that was right for her yet.

So with a little planning we decided to put this theory to the test.  At the latest gathering of The Franklin Society (our parish beer/homebrew club) we assembled an epic lineup which I was certain would get Rachel to rethink her opinions about our favorite beverage.


We tried to cover all the bases.  We started with a straight forward beer- Half Acre Daisy Cutter.  No bret, not wet hops, no bourbon barrels, no blood orange, no rosemary.  You know- the kind of think you drink and say- “Yep, that’s beer.”  This was not for Rachel but rather to help the rest of us to establish a baseline for the kind of flavors that we knew she didn’t like.

From there we moved into lighter, fruitier and/or sour flavors.  This included Steigl Grapefruit Radler, Lindermans Framboise, Lancaster Strawberry Wheat, an Oude Gueuze, DFH Namaste, Fraoch Heather Ale and a Pear Saison from Tired Hands.

We had some measured success here.  Rachel didn’t hate the Radler, Framboise or the Gueuze.  She didn’t like them particularly but they didn’t lead her to grimace and dump the rest.  Interestingly the veteran beer lovers had no use for the Radler or Framboise because there was nothing beery about them.  We were surprised that she still picked up strong “beer” flavors from the Namaste which we thought might have also been more appealing since it was so light and spiced.  Yet to her it was still bitter.

The next round got into some heavier flavors and higher alcohol and included DFH Positive Contact, Troegs LaGrave Triple, a Lemoncello IPA from Siren/Hill Farm/ Mikeller, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, DFH Noble Rot and DFH Theobroma.  Overall this round was far less successful.  With the exception of the Lemoncello IPA and the Noble Rot the “beery” flavors kept overwhelming the rest of the experience for her.  We thought it was pretty interesting that she liked the Lemoncello since the hops were not only very prominent but also very catty which was a bit of a turn off for some.

After a good palate cleansing we headed into the home stretch which was an epic mix of big ABV’s and big flavors.  We started with a Founder’s Nemesis from 2010.  It was a long shot but I was banking on the paradox effect.  At 12% ABV and 100 IBU’s this beer is a bitter but balanced monster.  Turns out my instinct was right- Mikey liked it.  The aging may well have helped here since it really helped integrate the flavors.


Rachel with her favorite 5

I was feeling pretty good as we popped the Rochefort 10.  One of my all-time favorites I have used it before to convert self-professed beer haters.  Yet this time I was wrong.  She didn’t hate it but even with all the rich dried fruit flavors Rachel still tasted beer.  This brought us around to the closers.  We started with a 2012 Lost Abbey Deliverance which is aged in both bourbon and brandy barrels.  Now it may have been the cumulative effect of the previous rounds but for the first time Rachel moved from tolerating to actually liking a beer.  The flavors of the barrels definitely had a hand in this success.

A 2012 Bourbon County Stout closed us out and again, Rachel actually liked it.  The aging helped minimize any bitterness and the rich complexity won her over.


And the winner is…

By this point in the evening we were all plenty happy and everyone, especially Rachel, had a great time. And I think paying close attention to the flavors and listening to how she perceived them taught the rest of us a thing or two.  In retrospect we wish we had also included DFH Midas Touch, a Flemish Red and a completely oxidized treasure like Utopia or Baladin Xyauyu, but heck, nobody’s perfect.

Of course none of the beers she liked was of the sessionable variety.  In most cases you’d only want half the bottle and then only with food or as an after dinner treat.  Even so, we proved the point,  And while you will never see her with a pale ale in her hand, we are proud to say that Rachel no longer hates beer.

What about you?  Have you ever successfully challenged preconceptions or better yet converted a beer-hater?  If so, please share you story.


Recyling Beer

Its not what you think. In college I tried using beer to water a plant.  Apparently the plant did not appreciate the idea since it died.  And although I sometimes get desperate to find a topic to write about here there is just not much appeal in writing about recycling my beer into the toilet.  But it turns out there is another way to get the most out of beer that would otherwise go undrunk.

All whiskey starts its life as beer.  I knew it in a academic sense.  This past summer in Kentucky I got have close up encounters with huge cypress wood tanks of fermenting “distiller’s beer” which is a higher gravity, unclarified beer made without any hops or other additions that then gets distilled into white dog whiskey.   But until a couple of weeks ago, it never occurred to me that you could take an actual commercial beer and make whiskey with it.

Then I got a call to stop by and see Walt Palmer.  Walt, along with his wife, runs WP Palmer Distilling just a few blocks away from my house.  Although Liberty Gin is their flagship, Walt had started to dabble with making whiskey and plans to market Manayunk Moonshine.

Then he was given 10 kegs of coffee kolsch beer by a local brewery, St Benjamin.  WaltIMAG00741 was planning to make whiskey with it but needed some help in figuring out how to move the beer from the keg up ten feet in the air to fill his still.  With the help of a CO2 tank and a long piece of rubber tubing the problem was solved.

The process of making it was actually rather straight forward.  Once we pumped all the beer up and in it was then just a matter of time until the foam, which was taking up twice as much space as the liquid, could settle.



The next day, after taking a while to bring to a boil, the still started do its work.  The resulting first running clocked in at about 25% alcohol (the original beer was 4.8%).  After another run Walt hopes to wind up with a final product that is about double that strength which will then be aged with oak.  Look for an update in a future post.

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I have no idea what really to expect but look forward to seeing if any of the original coffee flavors make it through. A huge thank you to Walt for expanding my education!


“Exclusively Normative Activity”

Several years ago I was with a colleague at a party and asked if I could get him 0515ee2ca88543194691633a4c155ac8a8de29-wmanything from the bar.  He declined, stating that he didn’t drink.  I asked him, “Why?”  He paused for a moment then said, “Because I don’t like myself when I do.”

“Because I don’t like myself when I do.”  What an honest answer to a rather direct and inappropriately personal question.  To this day I’m not exactly sure why I asked it.  It could have easily been construed as a dick move.  Fortunately my friend was able to set this aside and still give a forthright answer.

This past summer, while attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church his words came back to me.  After Thomas Palermo was tragically killed by a car driven by a very drunk Episcopal bishop, we spent a lot of time examining the relationship between alcohol and the Church. The special task force that was assembled put forth several resolutions, some of which went a bit too far in limiting what are often very positive and creative connections between the two.  But out of all the heartfelt and painful stories, all the expressions of grief, guilt and outrage, one phrase leapt out at me, namely that a big part of the problem was that drinking is an “exclusively normative activity.”

Exclusively normative activity?  What in the heck did that mean?  At first all I heard was jargon that I really didn’t understand.  That changed few nights later when most of the clergy attended their seminary alumni dinners.

The next day as I listened to various folks recount their evening what really caught my attention was not the fact that there was a lot of booze.  After all these are alumni gatherings and as such are not just celebratory reunions… they are also fundraisers.  Alcohol was an indispensable part of the asking equation.

Instead what caught my attention was how hard it was to find a non-alcoholic alternative.  One person said they had to get up and ask for a glass of water since there was only wine on each table in addition to the open bar.  At my gathering there were soft drinks at the bar and pitchers of water on the table, but even so, it was pretty clear that you were supposed to drink booze.

Then it hit me. Drinking on such occasions is not only accepted, it is expected.  And therein lies the problem.  If you choose not to drink, well then there must be something wrong with you.  You are marginalized and made to feel like an outsider.  In other words, drinking is exclusively normative.

In that moment I finally understood why I had so brashly asked my friend about tee-totaling.  It was a party but he wasn’t drinking.  And so, rather than just accepting his answer as totally valid, I made the operative assumption that there must be something wrong with him.

The problem is that I am hardly alone in my unconscious attitude.  If the Church is ever going to be the sanctuary it is supposed to be, we have to systematically become aware of, challenge, and dismantle the assumption that drinking is the only normal choice.  We have to get past the point where when we see someone who isn’t drinking we automatically wonder why they aren’t.

Recognizing and redressing this problem doesn’t mean we must therefore demonize booze.  But especially in the Church, we have to do better.  The Episcopal Church is founded on the principle of “Via Media.”  We must continue our commitment.  We must find a way to create some middle ground where everyone can feel comfortable and  regardless of whether you are imbibing or abstaining, no one stops to wonder what is wrong with you.

Gingerbread Jesus is Back

Making beer is hard work.  Period.  End of discussion.  Homebrewing is a good way to begin to learn this lesson.  It teaches us about measuring and quality control and after a while we start to understand that making beer, especially good beer, takes a lot of time, focus and dedication.  But industrial brewing, even at a small scale, is a far better teacher.

I was privileged to be invited back into this classroom last week when I returned to IMAG00667Barren Hill Tavern to again lend a hand in making Gingerbread Jesus. One of the first lessons of the day was that sometimes, not everything goes as planned.  We found this out upon walking in the door to discover brewmaster Dave Wood struggling with the grain mill.  For some reason not all the rollers would spin which meant we couldn’t crack the barley.  And, if you can’t crack the barely you can’t brew beer.  After an hour or so of taking the machine apart, making small adjustments and putting it back together again about 3 times we finally were ready to mill the grain.

This is where we got the experience the physical part of brewing first hand.  Hauling and lifting 50 pound sacks of grain and then hauling and lifting the tubs that held the cracked grain into position.IMAG00669 IMAG00671

Once added all that grain has to be carefully worked in so that is thoroughly wet.  The IMAG00674all steel paddle used for this purpose looked kind of like a canoe oar but could also have been the sort of thing you’d see in the hands of a Klingon warrior.  Moving it through a thick slurry of wet grain is no easy feat.  Dave made it look easy but when I took my turn I found it was a whole lot harder than it looked.  It’s not brutal work but it does teach you that brewing is a very physical art form.

After we finished mashing in it was time for a coffee break.  Which leads to another reality of brewing that few non-brewers actually get… namely there is a lot of waiting.  In professional facilities they definitely find ways to make use of that down time.  There is no end to cleaning, checking things like gravity and ph, and generally doing whatever else you can to make sure the equipment is ready to make the next batch.



After a while we moved things over to the boil which meant we could clean out the mash tun.  600 pounds of dry grain doubles in weight which meant there was a lot of scooping into plastic trash can and then dragging said heavy cans outside so they could be picked up by a local pig farmer.  This marked the end of the strenuous activity but hardly the end of the work.


Hops had to be added and then later the spices.  Since we were working to perfect last year’s recipe this meant doubling the amount of fresh ginger but otherwise we kept the balance of cinnamon and the nutmeg about the same.

All told the process took more than eight hours.  I’m grateful to Dave and Erin not just for making this crazy idea happen again, but also for opening the brewhouse so that I and other members of the church beer club could get hands on experience and deepen our understanding of how beer gets made.

Look for more updates on Gingerbread Jesus and the launch party with Christmas Carols very soon.

“Where have you been?”

downloadI stopped by my local beer distributor and those were the first words out of their mouth. “Where have you been?”  After thinking about it for a moment I realized he was right.  I hadn’t dropped by more than once the whole summer.  Of course some of the time I had been away, but the real reason for my absence was that this summer I fell in love with bourbon.

It started out innocently enough.  About five years ago my aunt brought us a bottle of Blanton’s and we were immediately smitten.  This will come as no surprise to most bourbon drinkers since Blanton’s is pretty high up the food chain selling for $60 or more.  To put it in beer terms it’s kind of like starting out with a St Bernardus 12.  Of course we didn’t know any of that at the time.. we just knew we liked it.

In time we started to try other, less pricy bottles like Four Roses and Jefferson’s.  It wasn’t long until you could find a bottle bourbon in our cabinet all the time.   In time rye joined the party as well.

IMAG00177By 2014 that gift of a single bottle had ballooned into a regular part of our routine.  But beer was still far and away my go to beverage.  All that changed this August.  In the course of a single week bourbon managed to eclipse beer as my evening libation.

So what lead to such a radical conversion?  The answer was an amazing six day trip to Kentucky.   With some expert guidance from the great Lew Bryson, my wonderful wife managed to map out a way for us to hit 11 distilleries in 5 days plus squeeze in a trip to Mammoth Cave to boot.  I’ll go into more details about where we went and what we learned in a future post.

But this brings me to perhaps the most ineffable, yet also most important, reason why that week altered my preferences in a way I would have never thought possible… namely that the love of bourbon is something my wife and I now share.  Don’t get me wrong- she likes beer just fine.  But in over 25 years together she has never, and I mean never, showed the kind of enthusiasm for discussing and analyzing beer that she does for bourbon and rye.


Said lovely wife dipping her finger into a fermentation vessel at Buffalo Trace

That added value is what finally toppled beer from its long held zenith.  That few minutes of discussion about which of the now many different bottles we’d like to share that night or the enjoyment of trying something new together… well it really enhances the experience and makes an already delicious beverage all the more enjoyable.

I confess that I am still getting used to this new order of things.  At times when I go to the liquor cabinet for a night cap, it feels like I am cheating on my poor beer fridge out in the garage.  And who knows?  In time beer might just climb its way back to the top.  But for now both my beer fridge and my local distributor will have to get used to seeing less of me.

I’m Baaaaack!

Summer is when things are supposed to slow down.  I get time off for vacation, work slows down and there is more time to relax.  You’d think that this would be an ideal opportunity to write some blog posts.  Yet for whatever reason, summer is when I write the least.  Who knows why, but now that ends.

There is much to tell.  Summer may not have allowed me to write but it did give me time 039_12800Jack-Nicholson-Postersfor many adventures including concerts, breweries and a weeklong distillery tour of Kentucky.  I’ve also had the chance to reflect more on questions of addiction.  I even got to try Butterbeer which even though it’s non-alcoholic still has to count for something.  So, it’s long past time I got back to sharing some of this with you.

Let’s start with my new favorite band, Ruby the Hatchet.  I first heard them on WXPN ( U-Penn’s radio station) back in June.  One listening to their track, “Heavy Blanket” was all it took.  I was absolutely hooked by the retro, Sabbath-esque vibe.  As you may recall I just love that heavy, early 70’s sound.  After legally downloading and paying for everything I could find (paying for music, especially from smaller acts, is an absolute matter of principal) I was thrilled to find they would be playing a local gig in July. You can check out a live video from that gig here.

The venue, Underground Arts, had a dingy basement vibe but with oddly upscale furniture and clean bathrooms.  After the opening act (Slow Season) I glanced back towards the merch area and noticed a young woman who I was pretty sure was RTH’s vocalist, Jillian.

IMAG00141 1After several minutes of internal debate about the merits of such an attempt, I went up and introduced myself.

The results were all I could have hoped for.  She was incredibly friendly and we enjoyed extended conversation musical tastes, how thy settled on their sound, their creative process for writing and lots of other stuff.  She also introduced me to their guitar player, John and other friends of the band.  Unlike some of my previous rock star encounters, this was most satisfying.

The next two bands, Mondo Drag and Electric Citizen both put on great shows full of that that same retro vibe.  Of course by then it was already 11 but even though my old ass was tied, there was no way I was going home.


Mondo Drag


Electric Citizen

Then came the payoff when RTH took the stage.  Their set was a very cool mix of psychedelic, prog and stoner metal.  Even their look including analog keyboards, and SG and Rickenbacker bass just made we feel like I had timed warped back to 1972 (Ok- I was only 3 then but you get my point).  I loved the show and will definitely see them again.  Since they are from Philly hopefully this will be sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep cranking up “Eliminator.”

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Ruby The Hatchet

Until next week, rock on.